In her second interview to SNI Associate Editor Amitabh P Revi in two months, Maldives’ Defence Minister Mariya Didi talked about her first official visit to India after her appointment. The minister has just ended her week-long trip as a state guest along with the new Chief of Defence Forces, Major General Abdulla Shamaal. She held talks with her Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman, met the Service Chiefs, top Defence Ministry and Coast Guard officials and visited key Naval and Army facilities.
The minister spoke to SNI on defence cooperation, the two Indian helicopters, a Dornier that has been gifted, radar installations and Coast Guard repair facilities in the Maldives. Mariya Didi also answered questions on fears of China’s plans in her country as well as the Indian Ocean region. She also elaborated on how India has always been there when the Maldives needed whether during an attempted coup, the tsunami or a water crisis. The minister talked about India being a traditional ally while China being an important economic partner.
Maldives’first woman Defence Minister, multiple-time MP, her party (MDP’s) first woman chairperson and the country’s first woman lawyer also talked about crucial domestic politics a two months after President Ibrahim Solih’s government was sworn in and a month after his first State visit abroad—to New Delhi. Mariya Didi answered questions on reports of problems within the coalition, the probe into former President Yameen’s administration and the Majlis elections in April.
Q: Mariya Didi, last time we met in Malé, we promised you the same kind of hospitality that you have given us so many times. I hope that’s what happened on your trip here.
A: It was even better, Amitabh. It was so much better. People have been so friendly, open towards us. It’s just been great.
Q: A very fruitful, productive dialogue, visit you’ve had, I believe over a week.
A: Yes, we met the Honourable Defence Minister, Excellency Nirmala Sitharaman. She was very, very, very friendly, very simple sort of person. She was very warm towards us. So, it was a nice meeting. Interestingly, people at home were very excited. It was the first time two (woman) Defence Ministers were meeting. So, it was a momentous moment. It was good.
Q: Give us a little more about the specifics. We’ve talked about it in Malé as well. How India and Maldives, especially in defence cooperation, have moved back on track or are moving towards that rapidly.
A: India and Maldives as we have always said have been traditionally very close neighbours. We’ve always had an excellent relationship towards each other—be it defence or any other. I think whenever we have needed any help from nearby people or otherwise if we have had any sort of calamity in our country, we have always found India to be the first one to respond to our needs.
Q: You’ve mentioned these times, the big times when India has responded. Whether 1988, the attempted coup, 2014, the tsunami and the recent water crisis in Malé as well.
A: Yes, exactly those three times when the people have been in trouble, they’ve come to our rescue.
Q: In terms of the helicopters, we’ve already seen that has been put to rest—the problems that were there in the previous regime, They’ve already being used; we’ve seen how the Mayor of Addu was possibly rescued. There was a lady around 65 years old, who you yourself tweeted about, who could go home.
A: She was terminally ill, has Stage 4 cancer and we were able to return her to her home island in the north—I think one of the longest distances the helicopter has travelled over the sea. But they did it. It was purely humanitarian.
Q: That’s how they’re being used there, for the requirement of the Maldives’ needs. There are a lot of aspersions cast because of the presence of the helicopters and Indian personnel. They’re being used for your need.
A: Yes. The helicopters are completely under our control. We request them for medical evacuation or some humanitarian need. They don’t fly without us requesting them and then too to where we say. They are completely at our disposal.
Q: How much of a move has there been towards resurrecting and moving forward the Coast Guard Radar Surveillance System?
A: Actually for some reason, the Maldivian media and some media in India have misunderstood this radar installation project. It was signed by (former) President Yameen and we’re just taking it forward. Some parts of the infrastructure have already been put in. We’re carrying the project forward. Now, the radar is very useful. The other day there were about 12 fishermen lost at sea. If we had the radar then we could spot it and go exactly to that place. That is what I was told from the station where the radars are being used to warn our ships as well—if they’re going too close to the border. The other day one big ‘Dhoni’ went into the Indian side but the Navy brought them in. Just to warn them that they are getting out of our waters so it’s very useful and also (zoom in) we can spot fish poachers. But some people try to sensationalise it and talk about it as something else. But it’s purely being used for our domestic use.
Q: To put those rumours or reports to rest, what can the Indian side gain? Can they train there? Use it for relief, rescue, humanitarian missions? What exactly does the Indian side do?
A: You mean the radar system? The radar system is more useful for us because the Indians have technology through their satellites, they can see everything. We visited the fusion centre and we saw all the ships around. So they don’t necessarily need it. It’s us who need it. We spend so much petrol, time, managing our people, searching for ships that have gone missing. But if have the radar system in place, we can easily spot it and go to the spot. Now we’re spending so much of tax-payers’ money, but there are some people who just want to talk for the sake of saying something—saying that is sovereignty and things like this. We know very well—If the Indians really wanted to occupy Maldives—they’ve never had the intention, but if they do, you know I don’t know how we can stop it. Your Air Force, your Navy, your infantry—there’s nothing we can do. This is just being practical:if they wanted it they can do it. But it’s not that. They’re there to assist us, to help us and be good neighbours. We both have the same interests. We both want the Indian Ocean to be a military-free zone where there is peace, stability in the region. We, Sri Lanka and India want it. So, we have similar interests and because of that we’re able to maintain this very close relationship which carries on to the mutual benefit of these two countries.
Q: Mariya Didi, as you have said so before, India respects your sovereignty and in talks between India and the Maldives other nations are not necessarily brought up at all—here we’re referring to China when you’re talking about the Indian Ocean region.
A: India has never brought up our relationship with any other country. They’ve always been talking to us and that’s it. They’ve never brought up the name of China, Pakistan. It’s left to us. They respect our sovereignty and that’s something we appreciate and we talk as equals—though we’re a very small country and India is a huge country with a huge army, still we talk as equals.
Q: When we talked to you last as well, the government had just been sworn in. You’ve had some time to settle down and move your policies forward. In terms of the previous regime and how President Yameen was seen as tilting towards China, the government seems to have completely moved away from that scenario.
A: Yes, because we have similar interests. Our government aspires for democracy, transparency and respecting the wishes of the people. You know, not over-militarisation. The Maldivian National Defence Force is there to protect the people and they respect the wishes of the people, they respect the constitution and we move forward together. The civil government is respected by the military. They’re there to cater to the needs of the people.
Q: You have been quoted in the past that China is not needed militarily in the Maldives. You’re looking at only cementing ties with India?
A: As I said before, we have similar interests, in the sense—political stability in the Indian Ocean being a stable region—being free from other military powers. Also because whenever we’ve needed military assistance of any sort, humanitarian assistance, like the tsunami, we’ve always had the Indians coming to our rescue. Having similar interests, wanting the same things and traditionally also being so close and being friendly—the other day also our fishing boat went into your territory—the Navy slowly guided them back, So, we’ve never had problems with each other. We’re good neighbours. We’re good friends.
Q: But you have your relations with other countries as well, including China, which has made a lot of economic investment and India respects that sovereignty. But do you have to balance between India and China or is that relationship clear?
A: Since we came into government, the Chinese have never asked or questioned about our relationship with India and neither has India questioned our relationship with China. China is an important development partner and India is our traditional ally—close to us and always there to help us in times of need. So, that’s it.
Q: Last time we spoke, the motions had been put into process of reviewing Chinese money, Chinese projects. Where has that gone so far? Even President Nasheed had said if necessary they would be reviewed. There was talk of the Free Trade Agreement with China being reviewed. Where is that according to the Maldives’ Government currently?
A: I think the foreign ministry is more into that so I’m not very aware of how and where it is going.
Q: You talked about the Fusion Centre that you had visited here with the Indian Navy—the IFC-IOR. You think that kind of technology can benefit the Maldives?
A: I think it certainly can. It was very interesting to visit the Fusion Centre and see the technology. We saw inside your Fusion Centrethat they were sitting at tables so that those countries that sign the agreement can come and even participate at a desk and watch all that in real time. It was really interesting. It’s something that we would really like to think about.
Q: India and the Maldives have always talked about how each other’s territories are not used for terrorism. We’ve had very bad experiences with Mumbai and they were fears earlier that maybe the uninhabited islands in the Maldives could be used in a similar manner. What have India and the Maldives done about terrorism or fighting terrorism?
A: Nowadays we don’t have to fear about conventional war but illicit drug trafficking, violent extremism, terrorism, poaching of waters—all these things threaten any modern society. Maldives and India have the same interests in trying to prevent these things. Piracy. And we’ve managed quite successfully to deal with these things. We have regular exercises every month, something that was started during President Yameen’s time but stalled when the relationship went bad. Since our government was sworn in, we’ve had the ‘Dosti’ exercises, the ‘Aquarian’exercises and we have regular patrols monthly where your ships come and our MNDF personnel go on board and they go together and do the operations together.
Q: You’ve also had meetings with the Indian Coast Guard. Any more developments in cooperation there, either in enlarging a jetty, port to allow larger ships?
A: I think we’re going ahead with the UTF project that we have also discussed previously. It had also been stalled. They’re going to build a slipway there so that our Coast Guard vessels can be repaired there.
Q: One of the big agreements when President Solih came was the handing over of the Dornier aircraft. Is that also progressing?
A: The Dornier aircraft was spoken about during (former) President Yameen’s time. They had much discussions on that. But we haven’t spoken about it yet. We will see how it goes.
Q: Domestically we have been watching what is happening and President Solih is so active. After India he has gone to the UAE, he made an unofficial visit to Sri Lanka. Internally he’s been travelling, we’ve seen the pledges that had been put out during the campaign and how they’ve been fulfilled. Domestically, is the next big thing the April 6 Majlis elections?
A: Yes. We’re all very engaged with it. We’ve had our primaries to select the candidates in our party. We’ll have a huge mobilization soon. When I go back I will be away on campaigns. We look forward—I mean campaigns are always exciting. See campaigns here in India, it’s something that gives you thrill. I really like going to the islands to meet people and do the campaigning. Hopefully, we’ll have a good majority in Parliament. With that we’ll be able to go forth with election promises and have our manifesto implemented which is what we want to do and that’s the business we came to do as well.
Q: The MDP (Maldives Democratic Party) says it’s contesting all 87 seats. Are they any hiccups in the coalition? Speaker Gasim Ibrahim was seen getting possibly closer to (former) President Yameen and the new party and how the Election Commission was involved. Are they any hiccups in the coalition?
A: The coalition is very much together. That’s politics. You have all these things where everybody is talking to everybody. There’s nothing wrong in that. Now President Yameen is in opposition and we’re in government, still anywhere in the world when you have opposition and government, you still talk to each other and go ahead with it. So, that’s also possibly why Gasim has spoken. But the leaders are very much together. The government is very much together. We have many ministries belonging to the other parties and we work together as a Cabinet. We work together as a government.
Q: President Yameen and the previous Government. Now, one of President Solih’s key promises was about accountability. Where is that progressing as far as the government is and the courts? President Yameen was questioned twice by the police.
A: Yeah. President Yameen has been taken and questioned twice. Things aren’t moving as fast as everybody would like to. But we wouldn’t want to be like the previous government. President Nasheed was sentenced within 10 days with what the UN later ruled as false charges—wrong charges, wrong procedure and wrong sentences. So, we’re very careful as to how we go ahead and we’ll see because we want people to be convicted of wrongs and not because of their politics.
(So, there’s no witch-hunt is what you’re saying. No No.)
Q: In terms of cooperation, you’ve come from a much colder place than Delhi. Shimla where I believe it was minus five—the Army Training Centre. What more can India and the Maldives do in terms of training, which is already there for so many decades?
A: We’re looking at India to make the Army more professional. I told you in my previous interview. We want them to work in a democratic society to cater to the needs of the people. To be there to help them, not like before when they didn’t really work or the chief was not seen as working within the constitution as anticipated from them.
Q: You told me in the last interview that you would like them to learn from India’s military forces on how they were depoliticized. (Yes) How can that actually be done formally?
A: They would come for courses; they would come for attachments as well. They would be with the Indian forces and they would see how the Indian Army is so detached from the politics of the country.
Q: Mariya Didi, we know how busy you are. When we were in the Maldives I remember your schedule used to be at the gym at 6 o’ clock. I don’t know what’s happened over the last week or so—your trainer I believe is Ibrahim Ghiyas. Are you missing him on this trip?
A: I’d like to be fit. In Shimla we really had to climb the mountains, it was really snowing, everyone was slipping. It was fun and keeping fit helps. I do miss the gym but then I love the food here so I’m looking forward to going back to the gym. (I wasn’t going to mention the food.)
Q: Maldives’ first woman Defence Minister, multiple-time Member of Parliament, the first woman lawyer, the first woman MDP chairperson. How much of a support is your family in what you do?
A: They’ve been very supportive. I come from a family where we have 11 siblings. My husband is very supportive as well. He’s come with me. He’s an ex-military person. He chips in with a little bit of hints every now and then. When I become too political about things and get passionate, he keeps a balance. So it’s good.
Q: Mariya Didi again it’s been a complete pleasure talking to you and we hope to continue this round of interviews with you, maybe next time in Malé.
A: Yes. Thank you very much, Amitabh.